The story of Mulan, a woman who went to war, has undergone many transformations, in China and beyond. Its earliest version, however, “The Poem of Mulan,” was not Chinese in origin, but apparently came from among the Inner Asian Tuoba people who in the late fourth century conquered the Yellow River plain to establish the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534). Though the received version of the poem is in Chinese, evidence is strong that this was a translation of a folk song in the Tuoba’s Altaic language. In this paper we examine “The Poem of Mulan” against the background of Northern Wei history to see what it can tell us about the Tuoba army, its relationship to Tuoba society, and women’s role in that society.
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